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Sale of iconic Ocean Drive restaurant seems near

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ (Week of May 28, 2015)

“I wish this would go away,” said an exhausted Paul Castraberti, owner of the iconic Lemon Tree restaurant on Ocean Drive, as he faced a sweltering Saturday’s lunch crowd at the start of the Memorial Day weekend.

Castraberti didn’t mean the business. He meant the negotiations to sell the business.

For two months, Castraberti has been trying to keep talk that the Lemon Tree is being sold to George Shinn, former owner of the Charlotte Hornets basketball team, out of the media.

Shinn, who divides his time between Vero and Franklin, Tennessee, bought a house here with his wife Denise seven years ago. The Lemon Tree has long been one of their favorite spots to eat, but he isn’t trying to buy it for the food. The Lemon Tree, he says, would be a project to raise money for charity.

“Our goal is for the profits that are made on it to go back to charities and particularly to help the poor in the community,” he says. “I hear there’s great wealth on one side of Vero and great need on the other. I grew up poor so I know what it’s like to struggle and be hungry. If it weren’t for the people helping me out, I don’t know where I’d be today.”

Along with the food, part of what may have attracted Shinn to the Lemon Tree is its lack of pretention. Opened 44 years ago as the Beachside Cafe, the 50-seat room is essentially unchanged with terrazzo floors, Formica tabletops and green vinyl booths. Even the menu was left more or less intact when Castraberti bought the place from longtime Vero restaurateur John Marx, who owns Polo Grill.

What did change last fall was the dinner menu. The restaurant cut back to just breakfast and lunch, and Castraberti says he’s been getting grief about it ever since. The dinner shift was run by Paul’s wife Marybeth and the two were tired of barely seeing each other – especially after daughter Sophia went off to college.

Saturday, when he was asked about a possible sale for the millionth time, an exasperated Castraberti seemed ready to call the whole thing off.

To hear Shinn tell it, though, the deal is nearly done.

“I’m 100 percent sure it’s going to get done,” Shinn says. “We have attorneys working on the contract and we have basically agreed on everything. We should have everything signed and whatever, in my opinion, by the middle of this coming week. We fully are going to do the deal.“

That was last Wednesday, the day Shinn was headed back to his estate in Franklin, Tenn. Since then, Castraberti has received yet another document in need of revision.

“There are ten different hurdles that we’re not over yet,” he said. “I’m not even positive that I’m going to sell. This offer I had from George is an offer I’m never going to receive from anybody else. But it’s not done. There’s no money in the bank. And there’s no ink. Right at this point in time, there’s a lot of doubt.”

His dreaded fear is that his beloved employees, some of whom have worked at the place for two decades, will think the place is never going to be the same without him as owner. “The door is cracked and they’re going to start looking for other jobs. Then if the deal falls through, I’m stuck without my great staff.”

Shinn says he wants to keep everyone in place, including the manager, whom he says he has already hired.

“We want everybody to stay,” Shinn says.

“We’re not going to run this restaurant. We just look at it as something of an institution in the community, and we don’t want the wrong people to get this restaurant.”

Castraberti, meanwhile, is looking at his options. At 57, with his only daughter in college and his wife spending less time at the restaurant, he is thinking of moving on, possibly beyond Vero.

Then his reveries – if anyone could call them that – were interrupted by a repair man. Calmly, Castraberti directed him to one cooler after another. “It’s 100 degrees outside and I’ve just lost all my refrigeration,” he said wearily.

Castraberti is a Yale graduate in history who like his late father before him has worked in restaurants for most of his adult life. His father, who died in 2011, had a master’s in biochemistry; he bought a run-down pizza place in Saugus, Mass. and turned it into a 700-seat destination, complete with a mock leaning tower of Pisa.

Shinn, who lost his father at age 8 and graduated last in his class, started his fortune when he went to  business vocational school, bought it and then bought many more, creating a chain of vocational colleges. Proceeds from the sale of the colleges helped pay for the Charlotte Hornets.

“We think the world of Paul and Marybeth,” said Shinn.

“Paul said, ‘After I get out of this for a year or so and get my blood pressure normal and things calm down, I might want to open another one with you as partners.’

“But that’s just talk,” Shinn added.